Call her what you like … the First Lady of Tourism … the Iron Lady of Optimism … Ruth Ziolkowski wants you to think of her as your friend and to happily remember her.
That was the message from several speakers at Tuesday's celebration of life ceremony for the late chief executive of the nonprofit Crazy Horse Memorial. Ziolkowski, 87, died of cancer on May 21 and was buried Tuesday near the base of the world's largest mountain carving in progress.
She planned her funeral services at the Memorial’s Welcome Center. Speakers told more than 800 people attending that the legendary Crazy Horse leader instructed that the service remain lighthearted, said program emcee Sid Goss of Rapid City..
Retired Catholic monsignor Father Bill O’Connell achieved goal that in remembering Jeep rides up the mountain carving with Ruth’s husband, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.
However, in imitating the late gravelly-voiced artist, O’Connell revealed that Korczak once seriously predicted the Memorial’s future.
“If this thing is going to succeed, that little lady down there is going to make it happen,” O'Connell said in the reenactment, pointing as Korczak did to where Ruth worked the family's home, which remains part of the Memorial's visitor center.
Several speakers recounted Ruth's achievements, including overseeing the completion of the Crazy Horse face, expanding the Indian Museum of North America, opening the Indian University of North America and enlarging the Memorial’s visiting worldwide audience that now tops 1.2 million guests a year.
Friend and fellow mystery novel fan Tom Daschle encouraged others to recall Ruth’s many facets of contributing “in the round” as a full person beyond supervising the mountain work.
He said the mother of 10, grandmother and great-grandmother built a place where Native Americans are celebrated and respected, and where everyday people are as welcome as celebrities.
“We can take heart in the knowledge it will be a better world because she was in it for so long,” said Daschle, a former U.S. senator.
Tuesday's celebration of life crowd included U.S. Senators John Thune and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker, retired Mount Rushmore superintendent Gerard Baker, current superintendent Cheryl Schreier, and contributors Paul and Muffy Christen of Huron and Stan Adelstein of Rapid City.
Ruth Ziolkowski's generosity and caring inspired thousands to help make the Crazy Horse dream real by contributing millions of dollars for Native American scholarships and starting the university … all with private funds.
Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce director Ivan Sorbel noted Mrs. Z's work on tourism-related promotions have the potential to boost the economy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, while the Crazy Horse university that opened in 2010 has an even greater potential.
“The Native American institute is a bright future for Native American students, not only in Pine Ridge but in Indian country as a whole,” he said following the program.
Lula Red Cloud, a great-great granddaughter of the famous Lakota leader, said the secret to what will be Ruth’s lasting attraction stems from how she treated all living things.
“She is a kind person – cante’ waste’ is what she has – a good heart."
While the granite mountain carving will last for generations to come, so will Ruth’s legacy, said Bishop Blasé Cupich, former head of the Rapid City Catholic Diocese.
“People like me who love (Ruth) will proudly tell others of a dear friend who managed to etch a place in each of our hearts.”